Saturday, December 19, 2009

Twilight Review: Part II

In case you missed Part I, catch up here!

So. What is it that makes Twilight click with almost all ages of a primarily female audience? Perhaps one explanation is that despite Stewart's impassive rendition of the lead role, Bella remains a relatable main character. No longer living with her mother and unable to communicate freely with her single father, she strikes a chord with the millions of viewers who are also the products of broken marriages and may be struggling to maintain a bond with their parents. Slightly awkward, introverted, and somewhat lonely, Bella also speaks directly to women who may feel similarly self-conscious or insecure, whether they are currently experiencing or looking back on the emotional roller-coaster that is adolescence. Her athletic ineptitude, tendency to slip on ice, and altogether clumsiness is what makes her endearing. Young girls can look to her for hope that they need not be exceptionally attractive, talented, or part of the most popular cliques in school to find someone who will love them unconditionally. Meanwhile, through Bella, older women can reconnect with the younger versions of themselves and indulge in reliving their teen fantasy of finding their "one true love".

Especially when that fantasy comes in the perfectly sculpted form of Edward Cullen. Brave, beautiful--albeit dreadfully face-painted--and hopelessly enamored with Bella, Edward is what every girl wants and every wife or mother can remember wanting. His appeal is enhanced by the very fact that as a vampire he is, for all intents and purposes, off-limits. As it is often human nature to yearn for what we cannot have, Edward is the ultimate object of desire for whom to pine. His complete devotion is made even more attractive by his selfless commitment to sacrifice his own sexual impulses and longings for Bella's safety. Although she implores him to make her a vampire as well so that they can spend eternity together, he refuses, understanding that doing so would only devalue her existence. A symbol of the mom-approved virtues of abstinence and unwavering loyalty, Edward embodies qualities that are rare to come by in this day, making him that much more of an ideal lover in the eyes of female audiences. Despite the occasional disagreement girls may have over his ashy looks, then, Edward, with his admirable character and morals, remains the perfect guy.

Further contributing to Twilight's appeal is the pairing of two genres. Vampirism purists may not appreciate the tweaking of the theme; however, Hardwicke seems to use the modern-day context of the alter the traits of vampirism so as to work in its favor. While some features, such as the undeniable sexual undertones and implications of mortal danger, are retained, Twilight's vampires do not don dark capes or bear overgrown fangs like their counterparts in films past. Instead, dressed in normal human clothing and each blessed with striking good looks, the Cullens are much more accessible to audiences who may be wary of or unaccustomed to traditional depictions of vampires. This more viewer-friendly treatment, coupled with the ever-reliable concept of ill-fated love, results in a winning combination. As seen by the popularity of classic tales such as Romeo and Juliet or even the relatively recent Titanic or Moulin Rouge, the idea of individuals from two drastically different worlds finding soulmates in each other is timeless. It resonates with female audiences who relish the emotion-filled journey of an eternal romance; Bella and Edward become the latest addition to a long history of lovers who, knowing that theirs is a risky and likely doomed relationship, are nevertheless willing to face anything to hold on to it. Wrought with the very real human battle of the heart versus the mind, Twilight's use of this tried and true formula seals the film's potential for success.

Finally, while one would prefer for the film to stand on its own, it is impossible to conclude a discussion of it's appeal without recognizing that it is due in large part to the branding of the Twilight series and the loyalty of its readers. With over 21 million fan sites, countless cast interviews in print and on screen, and memorabilia that range from Edward-themed underwear to tattoos bearing the Cullen crest, it has been impossible in the last two years not to encounter some representation of how saturated the media and society have become with all things Twilight. Not only can the expanding franchise nourish existing obsessions, but it can spark new ones as well, sweeping the unassuming bystander into the craze*. As such an all-consuming aspect of popular culture today for teenage girls in particular, it is almost as though a passion--or at least a familiarity--for the Twilight books and films is required for them to conduct their social lives without becoming outcasts among their peers. The marketing of Twilight has also led fans to become attached to the characters even outside the realm of the series: they inform themselves of the actors' personal lives; join "teams" devoted to Robert, Kristin, or Taylor; go to bizarre lengths to enter contests that will win them a day with the cast; and begin to see themselves not just as viewers but as part of the Twilight ensemble. It is this extensive audience investment, fuelled by the multitude of media outlets that feed their obsession, which augments Twilight mania and sends the public flocking into theaters to see their favorite stars in action.

Thus, despite the film's woeful lack of cinematic brilliance, Twilight's ability to engage female viewers with its relatable story, clever use of genres, strategic casting, and shrewd marketing allows it to secure its place as the premier love story of its time and win a fan base that is as faithful as Edward is to Bella. As a result, no matter how terrific or terrible the remaining films may be, Twi-hards are here to stay and will ensure that they are destined for the same--if not more--success.

*Apparently my cynicism has reached a point where ample views of vampires and werewolves with washboard abs have no effect on me, thus allowing me to escape from said craze unscathed.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Twilight Review: Part I

Until recently, I had little reason to watch Twilight for a number of reasons. Not having read Stephanie Meyer’s novels of the saga, I was blissfully ignorant of their seemingly addictive effect and thus had zero motivation to assess whether director Catherine Hardwicke’s film adaptation lived up to the apparently thrilling yet heart wrenching story offered in the book. Also, I have seen a grand total of one other vampire film in my life, and was hesitant to use the little free time I do have watching a movie in a genre that I clearly do not know much about. Third, I am a 23 year old graduate student with no particular attachment to Robert Pattinson, not a giggling pre-teen—or her mother, for that matter—who feels compelled to squeal at the very glimpse of his scruffy haircut in a magazine. However, over the last year, as I witnessed girls of various ages around me drop like flies in their obsession over the film and franchise, my curiosity got the better of me. I therefore justify my first Twilight experience with a review of the film and, in a "part 2" post, some ideas as an objective viewer as to why it has appealed to such a widespread, mostly female demographic.

Initial apprehensions over my unfamiliarity with the books disappeared almost instantly as I realized that my illiterate 3-year old cousin could have followed the plot without much problem: shy, attractive Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart) abandons sunny Arizona for the drizzly chill of Forks, Washington, where she finds herself inexplicably captivated by shy, attractive classmate Edward Cullen (Pattinson), who seems determined to maintain his distance. After Bella’s relentless prodding into the secret behind his mysterious demeanor, he reveals that he in fact belongs to a family of “vegetarian” vampires who restrict their diet to animals rather than humans. However, Bella’s scent is especially alluring for Edward, leading him to simultaneously fall in love with her yet doubt his self-control around her. The more he warns her to stay away, the more she yearns to be with him, until the two are so besotted with each other that even his potential as a bloodsucking killer is not enough to keep them apart.

While the basic premise is easy for us non-Twi-hards to understand, Melissa Rosenberg’s screenplay and Hardwick’s direction are still sloppy enough to ensure that unless one is familiar with the books, they will be baffled by the lack of development of much of the story’s elements. For instance, although scenes between Bella and her father are mostly halting conversations over burgers at a local diner, hardly any attention is spent on exploring their obviously awkward and impersonal relationship; they are as clumsy in their interactions at the end of the film as they are at the beginning. Taylor Lautner as Jacob, Bella’s childhood friend, has a total of about five minutes of screen time, leaving us puzzled as to why he is in the film at all and rendering him quite unnecessary. While ample time is devoted to fellow classmates’ pursuits for prom dates, the love story between Bella and Edward blossoms so fast that it appears forced. Their entire relationship seems to progress over the course of a week at most, so that when Edward insists that Bella is his “whole life now” or she claims that she has fallen “completely and irrevocably in love with him,” the declarations come across as ridiculously melodramatic rather than romantic—especially considering that the lovers are seventeen years old. Clearly, the film stumbles into to one of the classic traps of novel adaptations, attempting to cram in so many disparate components of the book to please fans that it is eventually unable to come together as a cohesive, flowing narrative. It is irksome to feel as though, in order to understand or appreciate the movie, one must surrender to the cult-like society of obsessive Twilight fans; Hardwicke unfairly assumes that we will either have read the series or will stay tuned for the sequel—neither of which should be a criteria for simply wanting to enjoy a film.

As for those who are unfamiliar or uninterested in vampire films, they really need not worry—the genre seems to be used merely as a disguise for what is essentially a teen drama, skewing quintessential features of vampirism in order to portray the Cullens in an idealistic light. While sunlight is usually fatal to vampires, in Edward’s case its effect is to give his skin a brilliant glimmer, which only makes him more beautiful to Bella. His vampirism is portrayed more as an exotic addition to his good looks than an actual threat to Bella’s life. There is not a single mention of holy water, crucifixes, or even garlic; the traits of classic vampirism are further distorted by the Cullens’ various eccentricities, such as Edward’s mindreading skills or his sister’s ability to foresee the future. Vampirism is used here simply as a reason for Edward to restrain himself from giving in to his desire for Bella; had it not had anything to do with the film, we would still be left with basically the same story: a determinedly chaste adolescent romance. Thus, viewers expecting another Nosferatu or Dracula will be utterly disappointed by Twilight’s lukewarm allegiance to the vampire genre.

Even more disappointing, however, is the depressingly abysmal acting put forth by virtually every character in the entire movie. Stewart broods her way through the film with exactly one facial expression, delivering her lines without the slightest hint of inflection. Robert Pattinson’s intense staring and grimaces of love-induced anguish come across as constipated rather than passionate. In a film centered on the romance between two such young people, actual chemistry is crucial for us to respect and believe their emotions. Add to that the fact that one of the lovers is a vampire, and it becomes even more important that they play their relationship convincingly enough for us to take them seriously. Yet, there is such a dismal lack of spark in Bella and Edward’s interactions that his insistence that she is like his “own personal brand of heroin” is laughable*. With a supporting cast of overzealous high school classmates, parents who try too hard, and not-so-scary rival vampires, the entire film becomes an exhibit of embarrassingly amateur performances.

So what is it that makes Twilight click with girls everywhere? Stay tuned for my attempt to answer that question in Twilight Review: Part II

*not to mention a leading contender for "Stupidest Movie Line Ever."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

After attempting to kill Sarah Connor in the first film, the Terminator is back--except this time he's been reprogrammed to have a change of heart. Returning from the future, his mission now is to prevent a bigger and meaner cyborg--the T-1000--from killing Sarah's son, who will one day be at the helm of the war between humans and machines.

For die-hard fans of science fiction*, it's easy to see how Terminator 2: Judgment Day is quite the pioneer in terms of its special effects. The film is composed of spectacle after spectacle, from cyborgs morphing into human beings to elaborate fight scenes involving raging fire pits and exploding trucks. The CGI of the film deserves credit, as it's hard to imagine anything prior to 1991 that achieved such sophisticated, awe-inspiring images. In terms of visuals, Terminator 2: Judgment Day undoubtedly delivered, and had me optimistic that perhaps this wouldn't be another run-of-the-mill science fiction debacle.

That hope dwindled, however, with the realization that the film's narrative abounds with gaping plot holes. While the fact that it's science fiction allows leeway for unrealistic events, screenwriters William Wisher and James Cameron seem to feed off the film's precursor, using its success to tamper with the logic of the story and get away with it. Why else, for instance, would it go unquestioned that although John eventually destroys the T-1000 and the microchip that creates all cyborgs, there still somehow remains the risk for a future war between humans and machines? Or that, although Sarah is stabbed pretty forcefully by the T-1000 during the climax, she's still quite able to remain alive, escape its clutches, and even try her hand at gunning it down? The only, albeit unsatisfying, way to reconcile such issues is to accept that this genre, by definition, doesn't need to account for much realism.

Nor does it appear to pay much heed to the quality of acting. Edward Furlong as the unruly, 14-year old John Connor is agonizingly irritating, overacting to the point where no longer do we care that he will one day rescue the human race from total destruction, but we almost hope that the T-1000 will get him. Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually in an ideal role here, because lucky for him, playing the Terminator doesn't require any actual acting. Instead, it relies merely on having physical strength and a robotic demeanor, both of which come to him naturally. His few attempts at humor and sensitivity are awkward at best; while they may have been included to give him more of a paternal image in terms of his relationship with John, it's all the more disconcerting to imagine that a machine is being made to take the place of a real person--which, on second though, may have been an intended effect, a warning of sorts that society's obsession with technology may be taking over human relationships. Only Robert Patrick's portrayal of the T-1000 is satisfying**; aloof and unapologetically brutal, he passes off perfectly as a soulless machine whose only goal is demolition.

Worst of all, though, is the sheer length of the film. Halfway through, it turns into one big chase scene that gets extremely tiring to watch. The T-1000 is supposed to be indestructible, the ultimate threat to the cozy family unit that Sarah, John, and the Terminator have become. Although we catch on to that pretty much within the first 30 minutes, Cameron seems determined to pound it into our heads. Thus, for more than 2 hours, we are subjected to watch the T-1000 repeatedly get shot, blown up, and disintegrated into puddles of liquid metal, only to fuse back together and resurface without a hint of a scratch on its human-like exterior. While the images are striking indeed, the lackluster performances, ludicrous plot, and unforgivably long runtime eventually overtake the visuals, making Terminator 2: Judgment Day much less enjoyable than it had the potential to be.

*i.e. NOT me

**and he doesn't even have any LINES! That should tell you something about the rest of the performances.